FRANKLIN — When Sarah White visits schools, she can tell which children go hungry over the weekends.
White, Tennessee's executive director of school nutrition programs, has seen students waiting, lined up, to get into school on Monday mornings, and not because they can't wait to get to class. They are eager for breakfast, White said.
"I don't think people realize that hunger exists for children," White said. "It is heartbreaking, and it's rewarding to see them eat."
White says that more than half of all public school students statewide — about 62 percent — are eligible for free or reduced-price federal meal programs served in schools. This includes breakfast as well as lunch.
Of the 935,317 public school students in the state in 2012, nearly 60 percent were considered economically disadvantaged. Studies show that children who come from poverty tend to be less prepared for the rigors of school.
Statistics become available during the first quarter of the school year, after attendance stabilizes.
Around the Nashville area, the numbers have been about the same as last year. But in the more rural counties, school nutrition supervisors are seeing gradual increases. For example, Melody Turner, nutrition supervisor for Wilson County Schools, says that 10 years ago the percentage hovered around 23 percent, but now it is approaching 30 percent.
"I don't know for a fact, but I'm sure it's the economy," Turner said. "People just don't have the funds they used to have."
Statewide, the number of students participating in free or reduced-price meal programs has remained about the same the past four or five years, although White remembers that about 20 years ago the figure was about 47 percent. She says there may be a few reasons why those numbers have gone up besides an increase in population.
New steps help
White says a weak economy has forced more parents to get help. Plus, changes in eligibility requirements, extended services to at-risk youth and the fact that it is easier to sign up electronically have also helped. Nearly all school systems have online applications parents can fill out.
The food program has been opened to children whose families receive food stamps, the children of migrant workers and the homeless, runaways, foster kids and families receiving temporary assistance. They are now automatically signed up for the meals, White said.
There also are measures in place now that remove the stigma attached to being among those who need the help. Schools take special care so that no one knows.
In the Franklin Special School District, where about 43 percent of the students participate in the food programs, all students key in a number upon exiting cafeteria lines. Only a few administrators know who is paying full price, a discounted price or receiving the meal for free.
School systems also now get lists from the Department of Human Services and can match up names and get children into the meal program, White added.
In Cheatham County, where overall numbers have stayed the same, there are huge differences among clusters of schools, said Tara Watson, chief academic officer for Cheatham County Schools. About half of the district's 6,600 students receive free or reduced-price meals. But there are some schools where 70 percent of the students participate in the food program and others where only 15 percent participate, Watson said.
And, as is usually the case when there are higher numbers of economically disadvantaged, academic achievement is lower.
The Franklin Special School District redrew attendance lines to try to reduce the disparities, and now the numbers are slowly evening out. Franklin Elementary School, for example, had about 65 percent of its students receiving free meals. Since the rezoning, the school is now at about 42 percent, which is closer to the district's overall number.
Unlike the Franklin district, Cheatham's school system is dealing with an entire county and faces natural boundaries such as a river and ridges. Evening out its numbers would require a population shift, Watson said.
"We try to make it work for all students," she said.
Williamson County Schools, one of the most affluent school systems in the state, has a similar challenge. While the overall number of students participating in free or reduced-price meal programs is about 11 percent, the highest concentrations of students participating in the programs are at Fairview area schools, including Westwood Elementary School, with 44 percent participation; Fairview Elementary School, with 36 percent; Fairview Middle School, with 38 percent; and Fairview High School, with 34 percent.